Chila (Suffering)

Denoting abandonment of all (worldly) pleasures and delights, and the affliction and hardship one bears when overcoming corporeality, chila (suffering) is used to express an initiate’s spending at least forty days in strict austerity and self-discipline in the name of spiritual training. During this period, initiates keep to the absolute bare minimum in meeting such bodily needs as eating, drinking, sleeping and speaking, and spend most of their time in worshipping, mentioning God, thinking and self-supervision. As if they had died before dying, they concentrate on death and are annihilated with respect to their carnal self and prepares for a new, spiritual life with the necessary endowment to be persons devoted to God.

Dervishes spend the period of suffering either in a silent corner of a dervish lodge or in a quiet room in their homes. Associated with austerity and even serving to fulfill some of its functions, suffering is an attempt to gain nearness to God or an active expectation of meeting with Him in the spirit. The original word used, chila in Persian and arba’in in Arabic, means forty, because such a period lasts at least forty days, although it may last less or more than forty days. It may even occur that the dervish feels obliged to suffer the whole life long in order to surmount the animal aspect of his or her nature. Regarding all hardships that dervishes suffer in God’s way as His precious gifts, they like life more as its griefs and hardships increase, and they welcome afflictions in the delight of living a conscious, deeply felt life. Some people of the heart consider misfortunes as Divine favors presented in that form, and desire more. Fuduli expresses his thoughts in this respect in the voice of Majnun as follows:

Never reduce Your grace on people of affliction;
That is, make me addicted to more and more misfortunes.

Jalal al-Din al-Rumi likens suffering and afflictions to a guest knocking on our door every morning and stresses that the dear guest should be welcomed and entertained:

Every moment a grief comes upon your heart like a dear guest.
When that emissary of grief visits you, welcome it as a friend;
In fact, it is not a stranger to you, for
You and it are acquainted.

Ibrahim Haqqi voices the same thoughts, dressing them in the style of his age:

If grief and melancholy come upon your heart,
Suffer it and know that it is acquainted with you.
If anything occurs to you from the Truth,
Accept it with warm welcome.
Sorrow is a guest, entertain it, so that
God may find you welcoming every misfortune.
…………
Hold not back from affliction so as not to become unmanly;
Many people relying on God are happy with affliction.

Ashrafoghlu Rumi[1] advises that poison should be accepted as if it were honey or sugar:

Ashrafoghlu Rumi, this is what behoves those who love the Beloved,
They should swallow poison as if it were sugar for the sake of the Friend.

In this way, it is essential to be very welcoming toward misfortunes, and to welcome with the same contentment whatever comes from God-good or bad, happiness or suffering. Moreover, there are some other principles which dervishes should observe during certain periods of suffering that they spend in retreat.

Suffering, which usually lasts for forty days, is the most direct way for travelers to God who are in pursuit of lofty ideals to purify their minds and hearts and to deepen in thought and feelings in consideration of the world beyond, and to rise to the level of life in the horizon of the heart and spirit where they will share the same aura with spiritual beings. Suffering exists in all the heavenly or unheavenly religions and religion-like spiritual systems; it is necessary in order to discover the innate power of the spirit. But here we will not discuss that aspect of it, which rather concerns mystical movements and parapsychology.

“I am that, I am” from Exodus 3:14 where God reveals himself to Moses through the sign of a burning bush. Moses asks God what his name is and God responds, “I am that, I am”.

Muslim Sufis base their consideration of suffering on the forty days which the Prophet Moses spent on Mount Sinai before being addressed by God (see, the Qur’an 2:51; 7:142). They also refer to the forty years the Children of Israel had to spend in the desert of Sinai as a punishment for their refraining from fighting and as a preparation for their future life. In Christianity, there is the time of Lent (a period of forty days before Easter), which shows that suffering is common to almost all religions and religion-like systems. Furthermore, even if it only lasts ten days, retreat into a mosque without going out during the last ten days of Ramadan for the purpose of more devotion can also be considered as having some relation with suffering.

In the Muslim, Christian and Jewish worlds, and in different schools of thought in Islam, there have always been retreat and seclusion for the purpose of spiritual refinement and training. While such refinement and training have been performed in special rooms of retreat and seclusion, called houses of suffering, followers of others religions have performed the same in the seclusion of their places of worship.

Dervishes are taken into a retreat or a house of suffering by their spiritual guide. There they live alone, eating, sleeping, and speaking little, and spending most of their time in worship. They hold themselves under strict control and self-supervision, continuously breathing life into the heart, and traveling in the mind between their inner world and the outer world. Wholly dedicated to attaining a purely spiritual life, they try to feel the Lord with all their being and to see beyond the door half-opened on the heart. Endeavoring to discern and attain unity, they fear missing any signs of the Divine manifestations that may dawn on the hills of the heart. They express the limits of their capacity and the insufficiency of their will-power with sighs of poverty and helplessness, and become more hopeful with their reliance on the limitless Power of the Truth. When left with no means at all, they expect to be surprised by the opening of a door, and unburdens themselves to their Lord, Who sees everything, in the manner of a poor beggar, saying:

Be kind to me, O my Sovereign, do not abandon favoring the needy and destitute!
Does it befit the All-Kind and Munificent to stop favoring His slaves?

As long as they grow in knowledge and love of God, they deepen in relationship with the Lord, and devote themselves wholly to feeling and thinking of Him. Keeping the satisfaction of their essential needs to the barest minimum, and overcoming their corporeality, they become confidants of heavenly beings in their states, attributes and being, and begin to breathe the breezes of friendship with the Sovereign.

Although suffering always takes on the same form, dervishes experience it differently according to their capacities and their powers of resistance. Some are almost completely freed from corporeality and worldliness, and are content with extremely little to meet the essentials of life, spending all their time in worship, thinking and mentioning God. Some others try to live consciously every hour, minute and second, letting no part of life pass without an effort to attain His nearness. Hours pass, weeks follow one upon another, and hunger, thirst and other hardships continue, without any sign of ending, but a dervish who has been accustomed to suffering as a way of life never desires the periods of suffering to come to an end. However, when the first period of forty days ends, the guide investigates to see at what stage the dervish is. The guide looks into the heart of the individual or reflects upon any dreams or visions reported. If the dervish has reached the point of being able to lead a life at the level of the heart and spirit, the guide will then put an end to the period of suffering with certain ceremonies. But it is always possible that new periods will be assigned if the guide considers that the dervish still needs more suffering in order to complete the spiritual purification.

In addition to the Mawlawis-followers of the Sufi order attributed to Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi-Persians, Azerbeijanis and even some Baktashis-followers of a Turkish mystical order-have ceremonies of their own for suffering. To whatever spiritual order or way a dervish belongs, the purpose of suffering is that travelers to God should purify themselves, discover their inner world and advance toward new horizons through the steps that are to be taken during the spiritual journey, leading a life at the level of the heart and then deepening through their other innermost faculties, such as “the secret” and “the private,” and “the more private,” observing their relations with and duties to the guide, perceiving the significance of obedience to orders, and endowing their spirit with humility and a feeling of nothingness, sincerely adopting the principle of being a simple human being among the people. This is what the guides, who teach dervishes suffering, and the dervishes who suffer, are seeking and what they expect from suffering. The final goal is to become true, perfect human beings.

However, it is not inevitable that one must suffer a certain period in order to attain what is expected from suffering. It is possible to obtain the expected result by abstention from doubtful things, being content with the pleasures inherent in the lawful sphere under the supervision of a guide who has truly succeeded God’s Messenger, upon him be pace and blessings, and who has achieved the degree of great sainthood, by the acknowledgment of one’s innate poverty and helplessness before God, by thankfulness to Him, by zeal in serving His cause, and by exceptional piety, abstinence, and sincerity. What is absolutely essential in this way is that we should not approach the forbidden things, we should be careful about doubtful things, and we should benefit from the lawful only to the extent of what is necessary.

For those who succeed the Prophets, suffering is, rather than preoccupation with worship and the recitation of God’s Names in seclusion, and the abandonment of an easy life for the sake of torment, the pursuit only of God’s good pleasure and approval, always being aware of God’s company even while among people, arousing in hearts zeal for worshipping God with sincere Islamic thoughts, feelings and attitudes, representing Islam in daily life in the best way possible, stirring up Islamic feelings in others, and by developing in others the desire to believe. This is the way of the Companions.

Suffering in this sense becomes, beyond our own spiritual progress, the dedication of our lives to the happiness of others in both worlds and living for others. In other words, we should seek our spiritual progress in the happiness of others. This is the most advisable and the best approved kind of suffering: that is, we die and are revived a few times a day for the guidance and happiness of others, we feel any fire raging in another heart also in our own heart, and we feel the suffering of all people in our spirits. Rather than only being aware of selfish considerations, such as “One who has not suffered does not mean what suffering is,” we groan with the afflictions and pains which others in our immediate and distant surroundings endure.

Actively expecting (exerting the necessary efforts for) the subsidence of the storms of denial and heresy is a great suffering, while enduring with humility and grace life among rude and ignorant people in order to enlighten them both mentally and spiritually is double suffering. The struggle with the cruel people who take belief in and submission to God as a sport and who reject Islamic values is suffering upon suffering. Finally, in an atmosphere where all the causes of suffering already mentioned exist, and where friends are unfaithful, where time and conditions are pitiless, where troubles are numerous, where cures are extremely scant, where enemies are powerful, and where the wheel of events turn in the opposite direction, to always breathe in the atmosphere of the Truth while having to live every moment of life as if sipping poison is the greatest of sufferings. All of this will help travelers to God to reach the final point in a very short time.

Those who suffered the most in this sense are the Prophets, and on their right and left are the pure, verifying scholars who succeed them and the saints. The hadith, Those who are subjected to the greatest afflictions and suffering are the Prophets, and then come others (according to the depth of their belief)[2] indicates this fact and reminds us that the intensity of suffering is directly proportional to the resistance of the sufferer.

There are few who really suffer in the sense that has been discussed here. It is not genuine suffering that people are subjected to in daily life. Those who really suffer feel suffering and bear it in their private worlds. It cannot be shared by others. The Prophet Joseph, upon him be peace, whose suffering began when he was cast into a well, experienced suffering doubly in a foreign county when he was sold as a slave and thrown into jail, and left among a people who had a different culture and language, and who did not sympathize with him. The suffering he experienced purified and perfected him in the name of his mission as a Messenger; and God made him nearer to Him. The Prophet Adam bore his suffering with tears, and Noah had to breast terrible disasters and destruction, while Abraham, whom God took to Himself as an intimate friend, always had to travel in rings of fire. The Prophet Moses, whom God addressed directly, struggled fiercely against the rebellion of brute force. Jesus, a pure spirit from God, called people to God under the fatal shadows of the gallows. And finally, the master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, suffered all that the other Prophets and Messengers suffered. He wept tears, groaned and burnt inwardly for the salvation and happiness of others, but without displaying any sign of suffering.

Hundreds of sufferers from the first day of human history have tasted the pleasure of suffering for the salvation and happiness of others in both worlds in utmost submission to God and have been wholly dedicated to the life of others, without ever considering that they have been made to experience the greatest of sufferings. More than this, they have welcomed such suffering and have been intoxicated with the pleasure thus received.thought worry

Suffering of thought is also another great suffering. Thinking, leading others to think, setting themselves to solve the severest problems and world-heavy enigmas, including that of existence, is a form of suffering. Thought does not yield, but rather builds bridges between and composes the Divine Revelation and human thought, presenting to “hungry” and “thirsty” hearts and minds the pure extract produced from this composition. This is the suffering in which the heroes of suffering, who are as sincere as angels and who have followed the Messengers, have found an antidote for poison in the poison itself, peace and coolness in the fire, having experienced such with the greatest pleasure. Such people are fortunate that there is no end to their periods of suffering; they cannot be pleased with the idea that such suffering is bound to come to an end. If you attempt to take them out of gardens of suffering, you will not be able to do so; if you were able to do so, you would extinguish their fire and leave them to die.

It is this suffering which is the purest source that feeds the spirit of a true dervish, and which is the most powerful means for travelers to the Truth to reach eternality.

Our Lord! In You we trust, and to You we turn in contrition, and to You is our homecoming. Our Lord! Pour out upon us patience, and set our feet firm, and help us to victory over the unbelievers. And let God’s blessings be upon our master Muhammad, our leader, and on his family and Companions, who were the patient and faithful.

By M. Fethullah Gulen


[1] Ashrafoghlu ‘Abdullah Rumi (d., 1484) was a Sufi scholar and poet who lived in Iznik in the North-Western Turkey. He was taught by Haji Bayram Wali in Ankara and Husayn Hamawi in Hama, Syria. He wrote several books, the most well-known of which is Muzakki’n-Nufus (“The Book Which Purifies Souls”). (Trans.)
[2] Al-Tirmidhi, “Zuhd,” 57; Ibn Maja, “Fitan,” 23.

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